Neuroscientist and Physician
Paralympian & World Records’ Holder
Author & International Inspirational Speaker
Dr William Tan personifies both passion and compassion. He contracted polio at the age of two and is paralysed from the waist down. Notwithstanding his disability, he has shown outstanding strength in overcoming adversities. From a kindergarten drop-out, he topped Selegie Primary School and went to Singapore’s Premier School, Raffles Institution on a Ministry of Education Scholarship for his Secondary and Junior College education. The National University of Singapore Alumnus who majored in Life Sciences joined the Civil Service after graduation in 1980. In pursuit of his dream to become a scientist and physician, he ventured abroad for postgraduate studies in 1989. Holder of a First Class Honours in Physiology, this Harvard University’s Fulbright Scholar and Oxford University’s Chevening Scholar has also trained at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in USA.
In 1987, he realized that, "winning medals, trophies or prize money should not be an end to itself. It should be a means to further goodness and to help people." Since then, he has devoted himself to championing as well as fundraising for needy causes in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, China, United States and the United Kingdom. He has skydived, water-skied, sailed and even climbed a 14-storey building to raise money. Some of his ultramarathon endeavours included wheelchair pushes across the length of New Zealand, Singapore to Penang, Thailand to Singapore, Boston to New York to Washington DC, Australia’s Larapinta Trail, UK’s Lands’ End to John O’Groats. He has helped raise more than $18 million on a voluntary basis for charities locally and internationally, over the last 22 years. Some of his humanitarian efforts include Polioplus for the worldwide eradication of polio and Operation Smile.
On 6th April 2007, Dr Tan became the first person in the world to accomplish a marathon in a wheelchair in the North Pole in 21 hours and 10 mins despite overwhelming obstacles and extreme conditions of –25 deg C to raise funds for Global Flying Hospitals.
On 19th December 2007, Dr Tan became the fastest person in a wheelchair in the world to complete 7 marathons across 7 continents in 26 days, 17 hours, 43 minutes and 52 seconds to raise funds for international charities on 7 continents (including the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Endowed Professorship in Paediatric Oncology). His amazing race took him to Antarctica, Chile, Egypt, Thailand, Japan, Kenya, Italy, England, New Zealand, and the USA between November and December 2007.
He is unstoppable - diagnosed with Stage 4 (end-stage) leukemia in April 2009, he has turned ADVERSITIES into OPPORTUNITIES. His CANCER has become his CAUSE. During his 6 months of toxic chemotherapy followed by bone marrow transplant, he championed for needy cancer patients who cannot afford the high cost of cancer treatment in Singapore.
For four consecutive years since 2014, he handcycled from London to Paris over a distance of 500 km in four days to raise funds for lymphoma and leukemia research in the USA, UK, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore.
His battle against end-stage leukemia has been his longest and most painful RACE. It has transformed him into a more compassionate physician and invigorated him to dedicate his new lease of life to doing more for humanity.
In 2015, to celebrate Singapore’s 50th Anniversary of Independence (SG50), he handcycled and ferried children in his chariot carrier for 50 hours continuously at Temasek Junior College to raise $50,000 to support the Straits Times’ School Pocket Fund and an orphanage in Thailand.
On 3 December 2015, he bravely made his comeback to wheelchair athletics (in 100m, 200m, 400m) after a lapse of 7 years (battling Stage 4 leukemia) to compete for Singapore at the South East Asian Games in Singapore giving his best at the age of 58 against counterparts 40 years younger.
In 2018, Dr. Tan became the first wheelchair athlete to complete the Pyongyang Marathon in North Korea. In 2019, Dr. Tan embarked on an handcyle challenge across Britain, starting from Land's End to John o' Groats, completing the 1,500km journey in 9 days, averaging over 150km over 10 hours a day.
He has also received widespread national and international recognition including the highest youth accolade, the Singapore Youth Award in 1995; Outstanding Young Persons of Singapore Award in 1996; the Outstanding Young Persons of the World Award (Humanitarian/ Voluntary Leadership) given by the Junior Chamber International, USA in 1997; the Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Youth Work in 1998; the ASEAN Youth Award and the Public Service Medal in 2000. The TAN TOCK SENG HOSPITAL established in 1996 the Dr William Tan Scholarship in Rehabilitation Medicine (first named scholarship in 151 years history of the Hospital) "to recognise his altruistic efforts in championing the cause of the disabled". In 2003, he was honoured with the Reader's Digest Inspiring Asian Award which “recognize deserving individuals who must be able to demonstrate that they have made a difference or are making a difference and are encouraging others to do so”.
For his relentless contributions to his alma mater and the community, he had been awarded the Distinguished Science Alumni Award, the Distinguished Alumni Award both of which by the National University of Singapore (2005); the Nanyang Technological University (2009); the University of Auckland (2014); and the University of Newcastle’s 2015 Alumni Award for Exceptional Community Service. In 2007, he was bestowed the prestigious Special Recognition Award and the Singapore National Day’s Public Service Star Award. In 2008, he was conferred the Singapore Disability Sports Council’s Sportsman of the Year and the FORTIS’ HERO Award. In 2010, he was named the second most trusted person in Singapore after the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In 2018, he was awarded the Commonwealth Points of Light Award from Queen Elizabeth II for his long history of charitable achievements
His journey of resilience and reinventing oneself to scale greater heights in the face of adversity continues to inspire many individuals and corporate leaders. He has spoken to many top companies and agencies around the world.